One of the first ‘adult’ books I read as a teenager was a lurid pulp fiction novel about the Aztecs, complete with human sacrifice and other bloodthirsty rituals. I have never managed to track it down. I don’t know why it was so memorable as I hate violence of any kind. I soon after obtained the Pelican edition of Aztecs of Mexico, by George Vaillant, complete with its Aztec skull inlaid with turquoise on the cover. Later still I worked for a long time around the corner from the wonderful Museum of Mankind (now subsumed within the British Museum) and often used to go there in my lunch hour to see the collection of turquoise inlaid Aztec objects, including that skull. This was the beginnings of an interest in Mexican culture which has stayed with me. Somehow in my textile design degree at Chelsea I managed to work a number of my obsessions into projects, including one based on Mexican folk art and other symbols.
When my sister, Nicky Charlton, announced a few months ago that she was going to host a family Day of the Dead celebration I was very excited. My sister does strangely share some of the same obsessions as me and said she had wanted to do this for years. The date was to be the 2nd November, All Souls’ Day, that reserved for family remembrance of the adult dead by Mexicans. The children are remembered the day before.
We would have a home altar or shrine, with photographs, mementos and other objects to commemorate our family members, make decorations and have a meal with their favourite foods as well as traditional Mexican food. This turned out to be a joyous occasion, especially with all the family decorating sugar skulls, as well as gingerbread people.
The meal included a bizarre mixture of Mexican items such as avocado salad, salsa, tortillas and mole sauce accompanying meats, along side cockles (the Laugharne influence and our grandmother’s favourite) and roll mop herrings (one of my father’s favourites), followed by a treacle tart, not quite as made by my mother. The pan de muerto stayed on the altar for now.
The shrine included objects my sister has hoarded over the years, including the creepy child bedside lamp and the skeletal metal figure pulling a cart holding a bottle of sherry, as well as the 1950s curtain fabric. I brought my grandfather’s 1st World War medal. Cocktail umbrellas and Tio Pepe also featured strongly in our parents’ lives, and the photo of our parents has them holding drinks. I hope they would approve of our tribute.
We later added the flowers, the decorated skulls and some items brought by other members of the family.
Nicky deserves full credit for the shrine, the meal and making the sugar skulls. The rest of us just added some extra touches. However, I must admit to being the premonition of the future at the shrine, along with my partner, in the first image.
To end with a quote from ‘The Plumed Serpent’ by D H Lawrence, another influential book I read in my teens:
“Amid all the bitterness that Mexico produced in her spirit, there was still a strange beam of wonder and mystery, almost like hope. A strange darkly-iridescent beam of wonder, of magic.”